Despite often being dismissed as childish diversions, animated movies require immense levels of passion and hard work and often rival the greatest live-action releases when it comes to powerful storytelling. There are too many animated masterpieces to count. Original classics like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" are always marvelous to revisit. More recently, in the ’90s, the Disney Renaissance gave us such movies as "The Little Mermaid," "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Tarzan," which captured the imaginations of an entire generation of little kids. Stop-motion movies like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" are still mind-blowing to watch. Then there are the brilliant computer-animated films of the last few decades, like Pixar’s "Toy Story" series, "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," and "Wall-E," as well as equally worthy releases from different studios, like DreamWorks’ "Shrek" series. Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli movies like "Grave of the Fireflies" proved animated movies could tackle mature, even heartbreaking themes, just as well as any live-action film.
With so many beloved masterpieces to choose from and revisit for family movie night, there are more than a few excellent gems that have fallen through the cracks. So which animated features deserve a little more love? We’ve taken the liberty of assembling a list of forgotten or underappreciated movies that are every bit as good as the ones that first come to mind when you’re in the mood to revisit your childhood.
We’re starting the list by slightly cheating. After all, 1994’s "Pagemaster" isn’t entirely animated. Much of it is live action. But when young Richard Tyler (Macaulay Culkin), a neurotic kid who bases his worldview and decisions on statistics and cold facts, discovers books, he gets swept away to a wonderful animated parallel reality. In this world, Tyler is guided by living books that represent the fictional stories he reads. Patrick Stewart voices Adventure, a swashbuckler sporting an eyepatch and a pegleg. Whoopi Goldberg is Fantasy, an overeager book that looks like a fairy, and Frank Weller is Horror, a zombie-green book that resembles Igor from the Frankenstein stories. Tyler spends a little bit of time in each world, encountering classic literary characters like Dr. Jekyll and Captain Ahab. In the end, by the time his parents finally find him, Tyler’s learned a thing or two about the importance of imagination and adventure.
Sadly, the movie didn’t get much love from critics at the time of its release. Many felt that it was a bit too dreary and intense for the younger audience it was trying to reach. But upon rewatching, we think there’s more than enough imagination here to make it worth your time.
A Goofy Movie
There are two "Goofy Movies," and both did something nobody asked anyone to do: humanize Goofy, the clumsy buffoon of a dog from Disney’s main cast. "An Extremely Goofy Movie" (2000) sees Goofy getting fired from his factory job (for good cause, since he always destroys the building). He then attends the same college as his son Max to make something of himself. That one is an often rewatched classic for those who grew up watching it.
But 1995’s original "A Goofy Movie" is rarely discussed with much nostalgic reverence. That’s a shame, because it deals with the same themes just as effectively. In this movie, 14-year-old Max Goof’s greatest fear is turning into his father (can you blame the kid?). As a result, he acts out repeatedly and succeeds in becoming a minor school celebrity, even attracting the attention of his crush, Roxanne. However, he also gets in trouble, which concerns Goofy. Wanting to bond with and help his son, Goofy takes Max on an out-of-state fishing trip, much to the kid’s irritation.
Much of the movie is admittedly pretty silly, living up to its name. Still, the father-son heart-to-hearts, and scenes in which Max lashes out and deeply hurts his dad, who just wants to be part of his son’s life before he grows up, are powerful.
1998 was a weird year for movie doubles. "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" were two schlocky asteroid-disaster movies with A-list ensemble casts. "The Thin Red Line" and "Saving Private Ryan" were both WWII epics that also featured a long roster of stars. Then there were "A Bug’s Life" and "Antz," two computer-animated movies about oddball ants who want to win the hand of the colony’s princess by saving their society from a dangerous bug threat. That’s alarmingly similar. Naturally, there were some tensions between Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks over these similarities. But although there was plenty of finger-pointing, it’s never been proven that DreamWorks ripped off Disney. And at the end of the day, audiences got two great, watchable classics.
Wearing the Pixar logo as a badge of honor and featuring a more approachable character design, "A Bug’s Life" has stood the test of time a little better. But "Antz" is a charmer, too (if you can look past the fact that the lead character, Z, is voiced by accused predator Woody Allen). The animation and music are great, and there’s loads of "this one’s for the grown-ups" humor to be found in the movie. The rest of the cast is excellent. Gene Hackman shines as General Mandible, who’s engaged to Z’s love interest Princess Bela (voiced wonderfully by Sharon Stone). Christopher Walken, Jennifer Lopez, and Sylvester Stallone (of all people) round out the cast.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The Disney Renaissance of the ’90s, which saw the releases of "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," and other timeless classics, seemed to embrace traditional animation heading into the new millennium. But then came Pixar, with whom Disney quickly (and smartly) partnered. By the end of the decade, fully computerized animation reigned supreme. It’s hard to argue this was a bad development, as it has led to some of the greatest animated movies ever made.
Unfortunately, the new computer animation craze swept aside many worthy films made with cel animation (even ones that used computers to bolster the visuals) by Disney, DreamWorks, and the like. One such underappreciated gem was "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," which follows Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a researcher who joins a group of mercenaries searching for the titular long-lost city. When they arrive and discover the Atlanteans are still alive, Milo discovers that Rourke, the leader of their crew, plans to steal the magical Heart that gives the people long life and sell it for a high price, killing them all. Milo teams up with the nobler members of his team and the Atlanteans (including Kida, his lover) to fight back. In the end, the good guys win, and Milo stays behind in Atlantis.
Like many other traditionally animated movies released during the rise of Pixar and "Shrek," "Atlantis" was a box office disappointment. But it’s still well worth a watch for anyone who loves classic animation and adventure.
Another little-appreciated gem, 2000’s "Titan AE" (After Earth) follows Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) and his search for the Titan project, a massive planet-creating machine made by his long-lost dad that was jettisoned into space after genocidal aliens attacked and destroyed the Earth. Along the way, he meets plenty of friends and foes and visits several sci-fi planets. The movie never got a sequel and honestly doesn’t need one: it’s got a tidy conclusion that leaves the viewer more than satisfied.
Like many other movies on this list, the movie also boasts a stellar voice cast. Bill Pullman plays Joseph Korso, captain of the spaceship on which Tucker serves for much of the film. There’s also John Leguizamo as the ship’s neurotic alien scientist, Gune; Nathan Lane as Preed, Korso’s alien first mate; Ron Perlman, who voices Cale’s father; and Drew Barrymore as Akima, Cale’s friend turned love interest. The action scenes are solid. The animation features that half-traditional, half-computerized style that briefly dominated the late ’90’s and early 2000’s before fully 3D computerization took over. It’s certainly dated, but still lovely to watch. Like many animated films of its era, "Titan AE" features plenty of licensed generic rock music, but they make it work. A scene where Cale pilots the space vessel through a nebula of angelic space jellyfish is particularly beautiful.
Understandably overshadowed by the beloved 1993 stop-motion classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas," Tim Burton’s spiritual 2005 follow-up "Corpse Bride" deserves plenty of praise on its own. The movie is about Victor Van Dort, a nervous son of aristocrats hoping to raise their social status by arranging his marriage. While he loves his bride-to-be, Victor bungles his own wedding rehearsal before heading out into the woods. There, he places the ring on a tree to practice his vows alone. Unfortunately for him, this action weds him to the titular corpse bride, who sweeps him into a parallel dimension: the Land of the Dead. Victor meets her family and discovers dark secrets about her past that threaten Victor’s earthly marriage. In the end, though, the man who cursed the corpse bride is defeated, ending her eternal torment, and Victor is free to marry his true love.
It’s a delightfully bizarre, fascinatingly dark movie with a stellar voice cast. This being a Tim Burton film (co-directed with Mike Johnson, of "James and the Giant Peach" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" fame), Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter take the lead roles. Emily Watson, Christopher Lee, and even Danny Elfman — the famed Hollywood composer — round out the cast. You can’t beat "The Nightmare Before Christmas" when it comes to stop-motion excellence, but "Corpse Bride" is a worthy companion piece.
An unfortunate casualty of Disney’s post-"Toy Story" move towards 3D animation, 2002’s "Treasure Planet" was an intentionally undermarketed box office bomb that’s only now getting the love it deserves. Pioneered by Ron Clements and John Musker of "Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" fame, the movie is an animated adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal "Treasure Island" novel, only set in space rather than on the high seas.
If it sounds insane, it is, in all the best ways. The story follows Jim Hawkins, a teenage troublemaker still reeling after being abandoned by his father as a child. After his mother’s inn is burned down by pirates, he joins a crew headed for Treasure Planet, seeking adventure and a future for his mom. Onboard, he’s mentored by the villainous cyborg Long John Silver, who betrays him and leads a mutiny in hopes of securing the treasure himself. However, Jim’s noble spirit inspires him to return to the light before it’s too late, setting up a showstopper of a finale. Along the way, we’re treated to some incredible music (if "I’m Still Here" doesn’t move you, you’re dead inside) and some breathtaking visuals.
At the end of the day, "Treasure Planet" was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if Disney hadn’t thrown the kitchen sink at it, it was released in the early 2000s, alongside some of animation history’s most beloved classics. But it more than holds its own among them.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
DC has no shortage of great animated Batman movies, but the best is none other than 1993’s "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm." This movie, a full-length feature attached to the beloved "Batman: the Animated Series," follows Bruce Wayne early in his superhero career, as he struggles with his enduring grief and the weight of his mission. He thinks he sees a way out when he falls in love, but the woman has baggage of her own. Meanwhile, a mysterious, Batman-like vigilante is violently hunting the city’s criminals, leading to the Caped Crusader himself being unfairly blamed. And lurking in the shadows, of course, is the Joker, who might be pulling more strings than you think.
The movie is beautifully animated and powerfully written, exploring the themes of good and evil, loss, and destiny. Mark Hamill gives what might be his greatest ever take on the Joker. In fact, all due respect to "Batman" and "Batman Returns," but this might just be the best pre-"Batman Begins" Batman film ever made. Luckily, it wasn’t the only quality animated Batman film, or even the only one associated with "The Animated Series." 1998’s "Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero" and 2003’s "Mystery of the Batwoman" are also excellent. But "Mask of the Phantasm" remains not only Batman’s greatest ever animated outing, but arguably one of the best animated movies of all time.
The Road to El Dorado
The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus for 2000’s "The Road to El Dorado" reads beneath an ugly, green 48% approval rating: "Predictable story and thin characters made the movie flat." Well, we’re sorry, critics, but you got this one wrong. It happens. Don’t beat yourselves up.
Absolutely nothing about this DreamWorks cartoon falls flat. The plot follows two decidedly substantial characters, Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), both unscrupulous 17th-century Spanish conmen who (mis)adventure their way to the mythical golden city of El Dorado. The animation is more than serviceable (although not particularly noteworthy for the era). The songs are as fun as you’d expect from composer Elton John. "The Trail We Blaze" and "It’s Tough to Be a God" are particularly catchy standouts.
The movie really shines, though, is in its characters and jokes. In a nutshell, Miguel and Tulio arrive in the city desiring nothing but its bottomless riches, even allowing themselves to be mistaken as gods along the way, and leave having learned a thing or two about what really matters in life: friendship, compassion, and selflessness. It’s standard kids’ fare, but the journey is so full of heart, lovable characters (including two intimidating baddies: Cortez, who leads an army of ruthless conquistadors, and Tzekel-Kan, a wicked native priest and sorcerer), and riotous humor that we can’t be bothered to care. No matter how much time goes by, "The Road to El Dorado" never gets old.
The Iron Giant
If anyone out there still dismisses animated movies as children’s schlock, just show them Brad Bird’s 1999 epic "The Iron Giant." Its simple yet stunning animation, wonderful voice acting (by Vin Diesel, Harry Connick Jr., and the always underestimated Jennifer Aniston), and disarmingly mature themes will do the talking for you.
The movie is set early in the Cold War, just after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into space and sent the US Government into hysterics. It follows Hogarth Hughes, a kid from Maine who, fascinated by space travel, investigates a mysterious crash landing in the woods near his home. The object he finds isn’t of Russian or even human origin, though: it’s a 50-foot-tall alien robot, who sustains a head injury upon impact and forgets its genocidal mission against mankind. Hogarth befriends and hides the titular machine, teaching it (and us) a thing or two about having the courage to do what’s right, even when your prejudices want you to lash out in fear and anger.
The movie is simple, funny, excellently crafted, heartwarming, and above all, unforgettably deep. The backdrop of Cold War hysteria proves to be rich soil for an exploration of good vs. evil, the nature of fear, and the importance of compassion.
The Prince of Egypt
The Biblical story of Moses, the 10 plagues, and God liberating Jewish slaves from Egypt, as seen in the book of Exodus, has been adapted to the screen multiple times. And why wouldn’t it be? Religious or not, everyone can learn a thing or two about faith, hope, and the human spirit from the timeless tale. And all due respect to the seminal, award-winning, Charlton Heston-fronted 1956 epic "The Ten Commandments," but the nod for best movie version of the story goes to 1998’s "The Prince of Egypt."
It features one of the most impressive ensemble voice casts ever, including Steve Martin, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Sandra Bullock, Ralph Fiennes, and Val Kilmer. It also is an attractive example of the type of mesmerizing half-computerized style characteristic of the late 1990s (where computerized animation is set against more traditional matte backgrounds). The movie is an absolute visual marvel to behold even two and a half decades after its release. The scene where Moses parts the Red Sea is particularly memorable. Then there’s the music. "All I Ever Wanted" and "The 10 Plagues" are simply stunning, and Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston’s "When You Believe" is still a tear-jerking banger.
The story is accurate to the Biblical account, too. It emphasizes the brotherly bond shared by Moses and Ramses, whose clash over the enslavement of the Hebrews is the central struggle of the film, more than the Bible does. But other departures are minimal in this epic, breathtaking animated masterpiece. Although it was a critical darling upon its release, it’s not celebrated or remembered nearly as often as it should be.